Kampala. Traffickers who smuggle Ugandan girls through Kenya to different destinations in the Middle East and South Africa have built a syndicate involving police officers, other security officers and immigration staff from Uganda and Kenya, an investigation by Sunday Monitor has revealed.
The syndicate secretly lures unemployed Ugandan girls with promises of lucrative pay especially in the Middle East, process passports for them, transport them to Uganda’s eastern borders, and then the games begin.
We have established that the traffickers use boda boda riders and travel agents to help the girls cross into Kenya through the official border points at Busia and Malaba, while some take advantage of the many unguarded crossings known as panyas to escape. It is lucrative business for those involved, our investigation shows.
Our investigations also show that the syndicate is accomplished by select officials at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) who ensure the girls fly out of Kenya to their respective destinations.
This investigation is based on information provided by girls who were intercepted in Kenya as they attempted to fly out to different destinations, two Ugandan resident district commissioners, parents of the girls, a labour “agent”, a Kenyan immigration official and an assortment of official documents and correspondences.
Some of the girls end up in South Africa, Middle East countries such as Oman, which are the most popular destinations in this case. Authorities believe some of the girls and young women are being sold into sex slavery.
To demonstrate the lucrative nature of the business, a boda boda ride earns between Shs100,000 to Shs200,000 for safely delivering a girl to the Kenyan side of the Ugandan border. This journey should ordinarily cost no more than Shs5,000.
We were unable to establish how much an “agent” makes if he/she successfully delivers a Ugandan girl to work as a domestic servant in Oman, for instance.
But even before the prospective employers pay the agent, some Ugandan girls are required to pay agents between Shs800,000 and Shs1.5 million and sometimes more.
The money facilitates the girls’ crossing at the border, their accommodation, fake stamps and movement to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. In some cases, girls destined to work as domestic servants are not required to pay any money.
The network that traffics girls through Kenya has existed for many years, but multiple sources show it intensified its operations after Kenya banned the export of domestic workers to the Middle East, leaving Uganda and neighbouring countries such as Burundi and the DR Congo as the major source.
Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is more popular than Entebbe International Airport in this regard, we have established, because the traffickers until recently, faced less scrutiny than they faced at Entebbe.
The traffickers also have agents in Kampala who help the girls and women to get passports in the shortest time possible. The trafficked range between 16 and 35 years of age, with 16 to 25 age category being the most sought after.
One of the girls, who we won’t name because she is still in custody of the traffickers, said she was trafficked from Kampala through Mbale up to Lwakaka from where she crossed into Kenya.
“We had to cross what looked like a river on foot. If someone had not been holding me I would have been swept away. I was scared and the water was very cold,” she said.
Another crossing exploited is the Malaba River. When the water levels drop, the girls are trafficked on foot. Some traffickers use small boats and canoes to move the girls at the border.
After crossing into Kenya, the girls’ passports are withheld and the girls are put on buses for the journey to Nairobi.
In Nairobi, they are kept at residences run by the traffickers as their documents are worked on. Sometimes the traffickers have to make do with fake stamps in the passports to facilitate the girls’ travel.
Some of the residences where the girls are kept are located in the Nairobi suburbs of Kasarani and Kayole. The name of a one Bosco features prominently as the facilitator at Busia border.
The traffickers keep 24-hour surveillance on the girls until after their flights take off.
When the girl arrives at the destination country in the Middle East, the trafficker receives their first pay cheque.
They continue to receive royalties throughout the girls’ stay and depending on the arrangement they have with the host family, business or individual.
To allay any fears among the girls being transported, the traffickers keep records of conversations with some of the girls doing well in the Middle East. They show these correspondences, photos and even make calls to the girls who talk of a good life where they live.
The traffickers also keep a tight grip on the families of the girls even after they are arrested and extort more money in some cases. A mother to a girl who is currently detained in Kenya had agreed to speak to this reporter but changed her mind after speaking to the agent who took her daughter.
“I am very busy and I don’t know how she travelled to Kenya. This is a small matter, I trust the people who took her and I have spoken to the other girls they took and they are happy where they are working,” the woman said. When we insisted on meeting her, she kept giving us wrong directions until we gave up.
One of the girls trafficked from Kampala but arrested before she headed to Oman told this newspaper that her mother had paid $200 (Shs720,000) to a fictitious lawyer who was supposed to represent her during trial at the JKIA Airport Court. The lawyer did not turn up on two occasions. The girl appeared in court alone.
Another woman said her agent has so far tried to smuggle her to Oman twice through JKIA. On both occasions, she has been arrested.
The first time, the Kenyan immigration officer who arrested her asked the agent to pay Kshs50,000 (Shs1.7m) for each of the girls to be allowed through. The agent did not have the money at that time but paid the officer Kshs1,000 (Shs35,000) for each of the girls not to be put in custody.
On the next attempt, however, the girl was not lucky. She had been cleared and was moving her luggage when a JKIA officer became suspicious. She was arrested and detained before being released. By the time of our interview, she was contemplating a third attempt.
Some of the girls are released after they plead guilty; others are sentenced to fines or short prison terms. Impersonation, however, attracts the largest fine with those convicted sent to more than a year in prison and more than Kshs200,000 or Shs7m in fines. Two Ugandan women are doing time at Lang’ata Women’s Maximum Prison. There are currently 44 Ugandan women incarcerated at the prison with more believed to be in other detention centres. Of these, 22 have already been convicted. The rest are still appearing before court.